Blind Tasting Project – NAS vs. Age Statement

by Oliver Klimek on March 25, 2015

After simmering for a few months on fairly low heat, the discussion about No Age Statement whisky has resurfaced again with two interesting blog articles. A few days ago Dominic Roskrow wrote an epic rant about NAS whisky, and today the TWE blog published an interview with Diageo’s Dr. Nick Morgan about the same topic.

The camps of supporters and critics of NAS whisky are as divided as ever, and these two articles do not change this a bit. My own stance on this should be known by now. I don’t condemn NAS whisky in principle but more often than not I have the impression that NAS whiskies don’t compare favourably to age statement whiskies that have a similar or even lower price. “Pay more, get less” seems to be the norm with new NAS bottlings.

Of course there is a good deal of subjectivity involved, on both sides. I would not want to exclude myself here. So to find out how NAS whisky really stands up against age statement whisky a blind tasting might be a good idea because it eliminates any prejudices by design.

I have already organized two blind tastings a while ago in a competitive format. This time there will be nothing to win apart from insight. Here are the details:

  • 5 pairs of current age statement and NAS Scotch whisky from 5 distilleries will be selected. 
  • There will be no peated whisky because that would make guessing much easier.
  • Participants will compare each pair in a head to head tasting and report which whisky they prefer or if they like both the same. Tasting notes, guesses and comments are welcome but not mandatory.
  • The full identity of the bottles will be revealed only after all results have been submitted.
  • I will select the pairs as fairly as possible. This means I would not put a Laphroiag 18 yo next to a Laphroaig Select (if peaty whisky was included). 

To allow as many people as possible to join and to keep down shipping cost, samples will be shipped in 20 ml plastic bottles by registered mail. Total cost including sample bottles and postage is €25 for Germany and €27 worldwide. 

There are 35 places in the tasting. The tasting will have to be cancelled if less than 25 people join the party. If more than 35 people apply, a second batch is possible if the number of applicants is larger than 60. In this case I may consider to pick 5 different distilleries for the second batch. 

There will be at least two weeks time to apply. I hope the tasting can be completed within one month after sending out the bottles.

Please apply by email to oliver at dramming.com. Only join if you are confident to have enough time to taste the drams properly and if you are happy with receiving whisky by mail. Any customs issues for tasters outside the EU are the private matter of the participant.

Payment can be made by Paypal or by SEPA bank transfer. Please pay within one week of receiving my confirmation email.

Do not hesitate to join if you are unexperienced. All you need to do is state which of two whiskies you prefer. 

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Joshua Feldman March 25, 2015 at 9:50 pm

I am in – as always – for your tastings Oliver. There could be nothing better.

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Erik Burgess March 25, 2015 at 10:01 pm

Hi Oliver,
Laura and I would like to be involved.
Something I am interested in exploring more.

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Jeff March 25, 2015 at 10:07 pm

I’m not sure what will come out of Oliver’s experiment because the real issue around NAS isn’t whether it’s good or not in terms of quality, it’s that it’s an unjustified, and unnecessary, reduction of product information for the consumer. NAS does not reflect either a production process or even an age category within whisky; it’s only a type of label that can be applied to any product of any quality. NAS is not really a type of whisky, so nothing can really proven about it as a type.

If Macallan 25 lost its age statement tomorrow, there’s no doubt it would be a great quality NAS product, but that loss of age statement would have no effect on the product itself, so the only change would be that the consumers would now have less information about what they’re getting for their money. Are, as a group, NAS products of higher or lower in quality than they were 5 years ago? I don’t know, but it’s only a reflection of which expressions producers currently choose to withhold age on in any case. Remove all the labels from all of the best whiskies in your personal collection and you’ll instantly have the best assortment of NAS products you’ve ever seen, but that doesn’t justify removing the labels or justify the marketing of product, even good product, without production information such as age. Even if every taster agreed that every NAS-labeled whisky was better than every age-statement-labeled whisky in Oliver’s test, it wouldn’t prove that either age was irrelevant to whisky quality (as the age of NAS whisky is, by definition, unknown), or, more importantly, show that reducing product information by leaving age statements off bottles somehow resulted in better whisky (as this can’t be shown in any case).

As a side note, while I applaud the effort overall, I’m not sure what “selecting the pairs as fairly as possible” really means in this context. Pairing whiskies of similar quality? If that’s being done, I’m not sure what it can prove about even the quality of whiskies currently being offered under various labels. If pairs are intentionally being selected because they’re close in quality from the outset, whether any given taster prefers the NAS vs. the age statement is largely going to be a crap shoot anyway.

As another side note, I find it hilarious that Roskrow criticizes bloggers for their lack of expertise in whisky and for being in the back pocket of producers over free samples when he’s already said that what he and other professional writers do is marketing for whisky producers and not journalism. (http://thewhiskytastingclub.co.uk/Blogs/domblog/2011/06/20/new-vs-old-media/):

“Let’s make one thing clear. What whisky writers do is not journalism. Not even close. The best definition of journalism I’ve ever heard is ‘someone writing something that someone somewhere doesn’t want written or someone else to read’. Accepting free flights, accommodation, food and premium whisky from the people you are writing about and then printing nice stories about them isn’t journalism – it’s marketing.”

When people intentionally tell other than the truth as they see it about whisky, their expertise, or ability to know/see the truth, becomes irrelevant in any case. Is Roskrow a critic or a marketer? After all, he’s said he’s both.

Anyway, I’ll certainly be interested to see what comes out of this experiment.

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Tony March 25, 2015 at 10:41 pm

I’d be interested in doing this, and will ask Dom if he fancies it. Oliver’s comment “I don’t condemn NAS whisky in principle but more often than not I have the impression that NAS whiskies don’t compare favourably to age statement whiskies that have a similar or even lower price.” exactly reflects my opinion. Although I would also add I have tasted a lot of entry level expressions with age statements recently and think their quality has decreased, so it could just be a general quality control issue across the board. This is why the experiment is a good idea.

As for Jeff’s comments about Dom, I’ll let him respond himself if he wants, I don’t think he was doing much marketing with that post though 🙂

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Jeff March 25, 2015 at 11:07 pm

Sure, when he wears his critic hat, he’s a critic and everyone’s fair game, and when he wears his marketing hat, he’s a marketer – the contradiction is in having two hats, not which one he’s wearing at any given time.

As NAS is really only a type of label, not a type of whisky, if you really want to do a NAS vs. Age Statement head-to-head comparison, what you really have to do is show two prospective labels for the same whisky to a comsumer, one with an age statement and one without, and then ask them, for the same price mark-up due to label printing costs, whether they’d prefer more product information or less.

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Tony March 25, 2015 at 11:27 pm

if you want to do a head to head NAS tasting you take two bottlings from a distillery of equivalent price, one age statement, one a recent NAS, and compare them in a blind tasting. As I understand it, this is what Oliver intends to do. So, for example, I would compare Laphroaig select vs Laphroaig 10 year old or Glenlivet founders vs Glenlivet 12. its not rocket science. The consumer view on the label is irrelevant to this debate, that is just marketing. This issue is are they trying to pass off an inferior product for the same (or higher) price. My suspicion is yes. A blind tasting will give us anecdotal evidence of whether the suspicion is correct or not.

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Tony March 26, 2015 at 12:54 am
Jeff March 26, 2015 at 12:53 pm

Even if every age statement beats every NAS, or vice versa, that still won’t be any argument for or against either age statements or NAS, because no whisky’s quality is a reflection of, or affected by, the marketing applied to it.

“This issue is are they trying to pass off an inferior product for the same (or higher) price.” If that’s supposedly what’s currently “wrong” with NAS, it implies that it could all be corrected if prices were lower and/or quality was higher, and that’s where we disagree. The problems with NAS are found, not in the value it does or doesn’t offer at any given time, but in the thinking behind the marketing itself: the willingness to reduce product information so as to hamper the consumer’s ability to make an informed choice, and the nonsensical, paradoxical, view that age information is only important where and when the industry finds it beneficial to discuss it.

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Thijs @ WoW March 26, 2015 at 1:31 pm

Jeff, you make a very good point. But just to add to your remarks: the (alleged) inferiority is not the whole problem, but it is part of what is the problem with NAS. I’m guessing that if every NAS-release was received as better than their age statement counterpart, there wouldn’t even be such a thing as a NAS-discussion. So in that regard I think this project certainly does have value. Or don’t you agree with that?

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Jeff March 26, 2015 at 9:41 pm

Good question, and I do think the project has value in reflecting the current state of the market regarding NAS vs. Age Statement – it’s just that current relative values aren’t a reflection on the marketing itself, and so those values aren’t the real issue with the marketing, pro or con. If age statements were currently seen as being universally poor values (and some might honestly believe that), would that be an argument to take all the numbers off bottles because it’s the numbers that make them poor values?

I’d agree that if a lot of NAS was better and could be had more cheaply, a lot of people would accept both not knowing what they’re drinking AND the industry’s completely irrational view that “age matters, but only where and when we tell you it does” (and what else will you eventually “not need to know” if the industry can’t turn it into a selling point?). A lot of those same people, however, would then turn around and complain about how cheaply professional whisky writers and whisky bloggers can be bought off by the industry, so the entire situation, in and of itself, is pretty paradoxical.

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Sjoerd de Haan March 26, 2015 at 8:42 am

I want in! Great idea, this!

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Rob Borghmans March 26, 2015 at 9:54 am

Count me in !

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Gal Granov (@galg) March 26, 2015 at 2:08 pm

cant say no to NAS tasting can I? 😉

good idea Oliver

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Brock March 26, 2015 at 2:58 pm

I’d love to participate!

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Hugo (@YFSTILL) March 26, 2015 at 3:42 pm

Hi Oliver, we would like to take part please. At least one of our club members is up for it.

Cheers!

Hugo @YFSTILL

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two-bit cowboy March 26, 2015 at 3:49 pm

Terrific initiative, Oliver. I hope you gain the necessary number of participants (local laws prevent me from joining in); I’d look forward to seeing the results.

Now I’m reminded why I don’t visit Dom’s blog along with my morning’s coffee. He takes no responsibility for ensuring his thoughts are easy to read.

Many of us seem to follow the same sites, but here are two recent head-butting reviews some may not have seen.

Aside from Jeff’s “consumers’ right to know” argument, they offer interesting perspectives.

Enjoy:

http://www.somersetwhisky.com/head-to-head-review-glenlivet-founders-reserve-vs-glenlivet-12yo/

http://whiskylassie.blogspot.com/2015/03/blind-head-to-head-glenlivet-12-vs.html

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Jeff March 31, 2015 at 11:54 am

It’s about more than the consumer’s right to know; it’s about the fact that the industry’s stance on age is self-contradictory and simply doesn’t make sense: age doesn’t matter, EXCEPT on the bottles where producers say it does. When it’s got a “25” on it, suddenly Macallan doesn’t care WHAT colour the whisky is, let alone whether it’s darker than Ruby, so long you buy it at premium prices. Does age matter? According to the industry, it all depends upon the label it decides to apply to a product at any given time and consumers are idiots/prejudiced/just don’t know much about whisky if they don’t go along with an official line which can change without notice and that comes from an industry which has ADMITTED it lied about the importance of age in the past JUST to push sales.

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Martin Ansel March 30, 2015 at 1:12 pm

Hi Oliver,
this is a great idea.
I would like to participate, too!

Slainte!

Martin

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Barry Bradford March 30, 2015 at 6:59 pm

Sounds like fun! Please count me in 😀

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Kirsty Clarke March 31, 2015 at 3:06 pm

Hi, Stewart and I would love to join.

Thanks

Kirsty

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Karsten Behr March 31, 2015 at 7:38 pm

Hi Oliver,

just read about your initiative and would be delighted to become part of it, so please count on me!

Slainte!

Karsten

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